Adjacent Analysis: How do these two found footage films succeed and fail in creating the illusion of reality?
What power there is, in the found footage film! Once, they could make audiences genuinely believe that what they saw on film was reality. In 1981, the director of Cannibal Holocaust had to actually prove in court that the murders in his film weren’t real. The makers of Snuff in 1976 had to do the same thing, when the film they had marketed as containing an authentic killing was suddenly under fire by the district attorney of Manhattan. Ruggero Deodato and Allan Shackleton weren’t the first ones to show death in their movies, and they certainly haven’t been the last, but they both took advantage of the found footage style of filmmaking to present their film as something other than fiction, which horrified audiences and critics to the point of legal action.
After Snuff and Cannibal Holocaust, the next found footage film to turn heads was The Blair Witch Project in 1999. The film allegedly depicted the last days of three student filmmakers who got lost in the woods while researching the Blair Witch. This claim was backed by adjunct material like a website dedicated to the project, and a pseudodocumentary called The Curse of the Blair Witch that further fleshed out the legend and disappearance. Moviegoers weren’t totally unfamiliar with the found footage style by this point, but the thoroughness with which The Blair Witch Project asserted its verisimilitude was enough to make them wonder whether it was true. And some really did believe.
However, arguably since Paranormal Activity in 2006, we have reached the threshold where found footage films have broken into the mainstream and now we just plain know better. The style isn’t just popular, it’s ubiquitous, especially in the horror genre, and all the mystery is gone. There were even found footage films like Cloverfield (2008) and Chronicle (2012) with bigger budgets, special effects, and Hollywood names visibly attached to them. They didn’t even try for plausibility; instead, they just used the found footage style as a storytelling tool (and there’s nothing wrong with that).
But in 2013, a bootleg tape was discovered of a 1987 public access news broadcast known as The WNUF Halloween Special. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an incredible artifact, and while it’s since been picked up by Alternative Cinema distributors, it’s also appeared online in a few other places. I highly recommend watching it before continuing with this article. I’ll wait.
Anyway, The WNUF Halloween Special surfaced at a time when found footage films weren’t a novelty anymore. It didn’t have the surprise factor that The Blair Witch Project had in 1999, but I still argue that it may have been the first found footage film to make a genuine, multi-leveled attempt at verisimilitude ever since. What I mean by multi-leveled is how it was constructed both diegetically (within the film) and how it presented itself in the real world with regards to promotion, distribution, and the media literacy of its audiences.
The Blair Witch Project is a very typical example of the modern found footage film. It pioneered the “shaky cam” style of cinema verité that polarizes audiences to this day, juxtaposing what the students shot on 16mm black and white film with the amateurish video from their handheld camcorder. The filmmakers are inexperienced and unprofessional, and the scenes shot on video appear deliberately spontaneous and unplanned. In a sense, they were: real-life filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez notoriously exhausted their actors while withholding the whole script, making their moments of frustration, desperation, and fear totally genuine.
Comparatively, The Curse of the Blair Witch was a much more traditional, documentary-style television program about the Blair Witch legend. The Curse of the Blair Witch was styled after In Search Of… and other mystery-themed shows, and used historic documents, archival footage, and interviews with experts and victims as evidence for the legend’s existence. Of course, all of this “evidence” is fake and staged, but the dramatic music cues and flashy transitions sensationalize the Blair Witch legend like something you’d see on the Discovery networks. The moody voiceovers – recorded in hokey “colonial accents” – that read the diary pages and letters panning across the screen play right into the conventions we associate with truthful material. There’s even clips from supposed television news stories about the kids’ disappearance, and archival footage from Mystic Occurrences (dated 1971) and a 1940 interview with Rustin Parr, who killed seven children while allegedly under the influence of the Blair Witch. Even though The Curse of the Blair Witch aired on the Sci-Fi channel, the thoroughness of the program’s pastiche may have offset any loss in verisimilitude incurred by its less-than-credible network.
To that end, The WNUF Halloween Special shares more in common with The Curse of the Blair Witch than it does with The Blair Witch Project itself. As the story goes, in 1987 the local access station WNUF had a Halloween special for their nightly news show, where their field reporter Frank Stewart took viewers on a tour through a house that was the site of grisly, Ouija-board inspired murders. Due to the occult nature of the killings, the house was alleged to be a site of demon worship, and had been uninhabited and believed to be haunted ever since. The program wouldn’t just show off the house, but Stewart would also perform a “call-in séance” with two paranormal experts and the house would be exorcised by a priest live on air. The night eventually went terribly wrong as Stewart and his team were suddenly attacked by unforeseen entities, and due to the bad press and fallout, the station destroyed all copies of the broadcast footage – but an old bootleg, recorded from a home VCR on the night that the broadcast aired live, emerged in 2013 for “obscure film collectors” and “lovers of esoteric cinema” everywhere.
The truth is that the film was made in 2013 by indie director Chris LaMartina. Like the archival footage from The Curse of the Blair Witch, it goes out of its way to look dated, but to truly emulate the 80s public access style, LaMartina went all the way and used period-accurate cameras and recording equipment while dressing up his actors and sets immaculately to match. To lend credence to it being a recording of an actual broadcast, the film contains the entire broadcast. As the movie builds up to Stewart’s report, there’s plenty of cheesy jokes from the news anchors and full segments about local events (like the neighborhood dentist’s “Cash for Candy” program), and even commercial breaks that get more and more frequent as the story intensifies. The commercials are made mostly out of well-edited stock footage, but the effort put into their authenticity is incredible, and it shows. The inclusion of commercials has polarized reviewers, just like the “shaky cam” technique did when The Blair Witch Project came out. They naysayers argue that the commercials are too frequent, too repetitive, and get in the way of what they’re trying to watch…which means that the commercials may be the most authentic part of the show.
And on top of all that, the film nails the VHS aesthetic by looking like absolute shit. While The Blair Witch Project aimed for amateurishness, The WNUF Halloween Special has been deliberately degraded to look like a grainy, unlicensed bootleg. When shooting wrapped up, LaMartina manually cropped the footage to full-screen and ran it through several VCRs to degrade it even further, stripping the quality more and more with each generation of copies. To illusion goes even further with how the film occasionally fast-forwards itself, sending scanlines and film scratches all across the screen. This fast-forwarding is implied to be a third party to the viewer and the video, either the person who originally recorded the special or just another bootlegger skipping through the boring parts while making more copies of their own. The result is something that looks decades old, brazenly unofficial, and extremely worn on every level.
Now, full disclosure: I was born in 1995. As a result, the time and place that The WNUF Halloween Special pastiches is one that’s wholly isolated from me, and yet, through my generation’s healthy addiction to nostalgia, feels totally familiar. I know just enough about the 80s, or I at least know enough about how people like to remember the 80s, that without knowledge of its production I could have watched every minute and believed it was authentic, even if just because I had no evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, despite all the effort that The Blair Witch Project put into constructing a plausible reality, it did betray itself in the end. The ultimate question that found footage films have to answer for their viewers, after “why is this being recorded in the first place,” is “how are we now watching it,” and for all of its allure, The Blair Witch Project was professionally distributed to mainstream audiences. The Blair Witch Project implied that the mother of Heather Donahue had passed the found footage to Artisan Entertainment for them to edit together, but why would any studio release what basically amounts to a snuff film? The very nature of film distribution and exhibition kills the credibility of found footage films, especially when horror is involved. The Curse of the Blair Witch did its best to mitigate this flaw by purporting itself as a documentary, only using clips from the found footage as evidence in a larger argument. However, it all kills its own credibility with three swift blows: First, the program concludes with an advertisement for The Blair Witch Project. Second, the program includes end credits that list every actor, director, illustrator, graphic designer, and crew member that played a part in lying to the audience. Third, when someone who sees the documentary goes and actually sees The Blair Witch Project, another round of production credits reveals that the whole thing is a construction, and a blunt disclaimer tells them to their face that the whole thing’s all made up.
The illusion of The Blair Witch Project was all but destroyed by its mainstream release, so The WNUF Halloween Special instead came from below. It seemed to appear from back in time and out of the shadows, with its source material – the videotape itself – posited as an untouched artifact, predating and unabated by the ubiquity of found footage films. Its aesthetic and backstory allowed it to slip itself seamlessly into the underground subculture of bootleg video collection: not only was the special’s release marked by a limited run of actual VHS tapes, but before it was even announced, LaMartina started a whisper campaign by leaving copies of his film around a VHS convention in Pennsylvania, and even throwing tapes from the window of his car in Baltimore. The idea was that some random passerby could come across those tapes, with no idea what they are, and they could pop them into a VCR, ready to believe. And there would be no credits or titles to give away the game like in The Blair Witch Project – true to the style of a bootleg recording, The WNUF Halloween Special starts and ends with nothing but standby screens.
LaMartina has said that if his film fools even just one person, then he “did his job.” On Alternative Cinema’s online marketplace, where the film is available on DVD, none other than Eduardo Sánchez of The Blair Witch Project tells buyers that he remembers seeing the special live as a kid. Other testimonies vouch for the film’s authenticity, too. The Blair Witch Project, while memorable for its innovations in viral marketing, was just a flash-in-the-pan stunt. The ways that it took advantage of the nascent internet and the novelty of found footage film is irreplicable today, and The WNUF Halloween Special knew that. By eschewing all ties to the actual filmmaking process (mainstream distribution, credits, etc.), exploiting aesthetics, and letting its backstory service its distribution, it could present itself as an artifact of the past and circumvent for a naïve audience the illusion-shattering aspects of other found footage films today.
Film, after all, is inherently deceptive. Ever since the first projector flickered to life in a dark theater and cast the shadow of a world on a wall, film theorists and moviegoers have been stricken by film’s power to appropriate reality. Performances are orchestrated lies, editing is an unseen work that betrays the authenticity of raw footage and effects like CGI are the most spectacular of all filmic forgeries. Watchers of film have since, over generations, become accustomed to these tricks and now they don’t even phase us, they are natural parts of the moviemaking process. But found footage film is the one style that still has the power to deceive us and make us think about if they could be real.
So here’s what you do: you get a copy of The WNUF Halloween Special and let your friend in on the backstory. Act like you’ve heard about it, but never knew why it was so “controversial” or “sought after.” Put it on with either a VHS tape or illicit online upload, and go from there. Maybe your friend will see right through it, but laugh along anyway. Maybe they’ll see right through it and think it’s a waste of time like the commercial-hating reviewers online. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll watch the whole thing with wide eyes. Our response to found footage films, pseudodocumentaries, and like is based on our naiveté, and our naiveté is effected by know, don’t know, and think we know about them. If a viewer has no reason to believe that WNUF never existed, and if they have no reason to believe that this special was filmed anytime other than in 1987, and if they have no reason to believe that Phil’s Carpet Warehouse wasn’t having one helluva sale back then, then they’ll believe in The WNUF Halloween Special, and you can see cinema work its magic like it’s 1895 again, and people are diving out of their seats before L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.